When it comes to working with someone to improve your life – financially, emotionally, mentally, or physically – you have a few options. It really depends on what exactly you’re looking for. Both therapists and life coaches can be valuable resources for your mental health arsenal, but they are not interchangeable.
Life Coach vs. Therapist
What do life coaches do?
Life coaches work with clients to help them make changes in their lives and achieve goals, guiding them through life’s challenges and providing support, accountability, and a nonjudgmental space to explore concerns along the way. Life coaches empower their clients to uncover the answers themselves, encouraging them to achieve personal and professional breakthroughs and set their own course for the future. Life coaches can assist clients virtually or in person, depending on the needs of both coach and client.
Once the life coach gets to know the client in an introductory session, the coach will have clarity on what aspects of the client’s life need the most attention and why they want to address them.
After the area of focus is determined, coaches and clients will plan how to tackle issues together. Just like a Health Coach, sessions are client-led and will support clients in making S.M.A.R.T. goals. Depending on the preferences of the coach and the client, the coach may:
- Write a plan with set, achievable goals
- Check in at predetermined intervals to ensure progress is being made
- Set specific timelines for goal completion
- Take a different approach altogether
The coach-client relationship is really a partnership – one can’t find success without the other! Coaches show up for their clients to support them through their work, and clients show up for their coaches by applying what they’ve learned during their sessions to their daily lives. Coaches may choose to meet with clients weekly or monthly, depending on the goals they’ve discussed and challenges they’re trying to overcome.
What do therapists do?
Therapists treat mental health conditions and help people work through trauma and other issues. Working with a therapist or psychologist can help you deal with certain unresolved mental health issues, such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or other similar conditions.
Therapists have a degree – typically a bachelor’s plus a master’s or doctorate – and receive formal training to assist people through mental health crises and issues. If you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health problem, like feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, sleep disruptions, or mood swings, consult a mental health professional as soon as possible.
Patients may seek therapists to work on a specific issue or generally improve their mental health and overall well-being. Therapists may use a number of techniques when working with patients depending on the issues being faced. Therapists also usually spend several sessions getting background information on their patients before diving into a course of treatment.
Comparing Life Coaches and Therapists
Some life coaches have a specialty, like financial planning, career counseling, or health and wellness coaching. Focusing on a particular niche helps coaches connect with clients looking for specific guidance and makes it easier for coaches to find clients they know will benefit from their coaching. It also helps clients know their coaches will be able to support them. Similarly, therapists can focus on a particular area or group of people, such as family sessions or people with depression, anxiety, PTSD, or another mental health concern.
Therapists and life coaches can work either in person or remotely, depending on the preferences of both the patient and the coach. Some therapists may recommend in-person sessions to execute some of the more hands-on approaches to therapy, like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
Life coaches are not therapists and are not a valid replacement for any kind of therapy, especially if you’re experiencing mental health issues or a crisis. Unlike life coaches, therapists treat mental health conditions and help people work through trauma and other issues. While working with a life coach may help you deal with certain issues, life coaches do not treat mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or other mental health conditions; they do not diagnose any such conditions, either. Psychiatrists (therapists with a license to practice medicine, not just a doctoral degree) can prescribe medications for mental and mood disorders; life coaches cannot.
While life coaches are not regulated by any medical body, therapists are legally required to comply with and follow HIPAA guidelines, which include confidentiality regulations and an ethical code, in addition to laws of practice in the state they received their license. Access to therapists and life coaches can vary as well. Your insurance provider may approve a set number of therapy appointments per year, and you will likely have to pay a copay directly to the therapist. It gets a little trickier working with insurance companies when it comes to health and wellness coaches, though.
Insurance carriers don’t typically cover life coaches, although the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs successfully applied for the creation of a new insurance code for health and wellness coaching through the American Medical Association. These codes went into effect in May 2020 and allow for submission to insurance companies. The codes help recognize the true value of Health Coaches, demonstrating that the services coaches provide can drastically improve health outcomes for patients.
When to See a Life Coach or Therapist
Life coaches can be valuable resources for:
If you’re struggling with mental health to the point where it impacts your quality of life and job performance, a therapist would be a more appropriate practitioner for you. Therapists can assist with regulating emotions, diagnosing mental health disorders, and working through grief and trauma.
The bottom line
If you’re looking to work on your mental health, having suicidal thoughts, need a diagnosis, or desire prescribed medication for a mental illness, you should reach out to a therapist. If you’re trying to improve your morning routine, get family or romantic relationship advice, or wish to learn more about how creating healthier habits can improve your life, a life coach might be right for you!